Unusual Attitudes: A No-Excuses Screw-up

Martha comes clean about her embarrassing airport incident.

Martha Lunken Piper Cub Damage
A small mistake turned into a big problem for Martha when the propeller of the Piper Cub she was taxiing damaged the wingtip of a Cessna 150.Martha Lunken

Whenever I start wondering if the well will run dry, I find myself embroiled in something so preposterous, spectacular, outrageous or dumb that it’s worth writing about. But I have to confess: I was less than proud about this latest escapade and made several attempts to explain it away as a minor, moderately embarrassing but simple incident. When this “no big deal” exploit morphed into something more complex and painful, I decided to abandon it and spin another tale. That, of course, was not to be; I kept hearing the flutter of wings from that pesky angel who hovers nearby and knew I’d have to come clean.

No, it wasn’t Tenerife. The “tragedy” and source of huge embarrassment involved the scratch I put in my Cub’s brand-new metal propeller … and also the bent metal in the left wingtip of Dave Thurston’s Cessna 150.

About a week earlier, I’d bought back my best friend’s interest in a Piper Cub. Bobby Strunk lost his medical a few years ago, but he loved the Cub and loved coming to the airport — the same field where he instructed 60-some years ago before going to the airlines. Bob would spend hours tinkering with the airplane or working to free up the warped and rusty doors on the ancient T hangar (the same one that was old 50 years ago when it housed my Pietenpol). He even modified a garden tractor so I could pull the Cub uphill and out of the hangar without help. We’d fly it together after untangling the mess of spaghetti — a wacky wad of wires connecting a Sporty’s handheld transceiver, the comm antenna, two Bose headsets, a push-to-talk switch, portable intercom and Bob’s hearing aids. The only chance of hurting ourselves in this Cub would be by strangulation.

Bob suffered a bad stroke in January, and then, just regaining mobility, there was the devastating discovery of widespread, advanced cancer. I was driving past the airport on my way home from my daily vigil with Bob when I felt a strong urge to fly the Cub. As weird as it sounds, I needed to share my sorrow and take comfort from this beloved airplane.

But here’s where compassionate friendship ends and stupidity begins. Maybe it’s politically incorrect, but I’m still allowed to call myself a dumb broad (one reason I’m neither popular with nor a member of hallowed organizations like Women in Aviation and the Ninety-Nines).

I was driving past the airport on my way home from my daily vigil with Bob when I felt a strong urge to fly the Cub. As weird as it sounds, I needed to share my sorrow and take comfort from this beloved airplane.

I watched a layer of broken clouds at a couple thousand feet moving at a rather alarming rate, and the surface winds were 25 to 35 knots from the south with a 30-degree left crosswind on the hard surface runway — doable but close to my limit. I looked the airplane over, sumped the tank and made a stab at checking the oil. But the modified cap sits at an awkward angle and is difficult — no, it’s a bitch — to get off. I gave up twisting, confident it was full.

My hangar neighbor held the brakes while I propped, and the Cub roared to life on the first pull. (No, guys, I can’t prop it from behind.) I climbed in and taxied out on this perfect evening — even the funky avionics setup behaved. On takeoff, that 85 hp Cub with 100 pounds of me, 12 gallons of fuel and a 25-knot wind was airborne in a couple hundred feet. But when I leveled off, there were dark droplets on the windshield and, suspecting I hadn’t seated that oil cap tightly, I told the tower I’d make a full-stop landing.

The surface winds were gusty, so I taxied carefully into the grass area, but now my neighbor’s RV-10 was sitting out in front of his hangar. This meant I couldn’t make the usual counterclockwise swing to line up on my adjacent concrete pad. But it was no big deal. I’d just widen out to the left in the grass and then turn clockwise, taxiing in an S-pattern to be sure I was well clear of his airplane and careful to avoid blowing prop wash into the hangars.

It would have worked beautifully if I hadn’t totally forgotten that Dave was now tying his Cessna 150 out there in the grass … by itself and at a kind of odd angle. There is absolutely no way I can describe that feeling — the sudden horrible realization of “Dear God, Martha, there’s that 150 out here, and it’s gotta be very close.”

I switched off the mags, climbed on the heel brakes and hoped against hope, but as the prop was stopping, I heard a crunch — Dave’s wingtip — and my heart sank.

There is absolutely no way I can describe that feeling — the sudden horrible realization of “Dear God, Martha, there’s that 150 out here, and it’s gotta be very close.”

After thanking the Lord nobody was hurt, I launched into a stream of profanity even I found amazing. Then I sat there for a long time, weighing the legal and moral ramifications. Because it happened while taxiing and not for the purpose of flight, and since the damage wasn’t structural, it was officially an incident, which meant no report to the NTSB (or FAA) was necessary. So I called David Rigg at Parrish O’Neill Insurance and Dave Thurston, the Cessna owner, and then I took a bunch of pictures, put the Cub in the hangar and drove home with my tail between my legs.

On the first couple of drafts of this story, I had all kinds of explanations — the emotional upset about my friend, the RV sitting in the way, the unusual position of the tied-down Cessna and the phase of the moon. But they just didn’t fly. (That angel again, I think). The only explanation — embarrassing but honest — is that I screwed up.

It was a surprise when I got a call from an FAA airworthiness inspector — a guy I’d worked with for years — who said he would be at the airport to look at the damage.

“Why? It was just an incident, so I didn’t report it. How did you find out?”

Martha Lunken Piper Cub Damage
A close-up of the damage to the 150.Martha Lunken

Well, old friend or not, Stan wasn’t going to divulge his source, but it didn’t take long for me to identify the snitch — a local mechanic who (to put it mildly) isn’t one of my admirers. Then Gary Middletown, an operations inspector, called and, after he read me my Pilot’s (read “Miranda”) Bill of Rights, said he needed to interview me and fill out an incident report. The real jolt came with another call from Gary who said I’d be receiving a letter requiring I take a 709 re-examination.

Before working up a head of steam about the snitch and the FAA, I sat myself down for a “come to Jesus” meeting. I should have called it in. Incident or not, I’m a designated pilot examiner — a “representative of the administrator” — and, therefore, rightly held to a higher standard.

As for the snitch? Well, there isn’t much time in that little dash between the birth and death dates on our headstones — too little time to waste on grudges and anger. I’m trying to spend it living joyfully, forgiving others and myself for our screw-ups, working to heal hurts and resentments, and — oh, yeah — practicing for my 709 flight test.